Welsh National Opera – Rossini’s The Barber of Seville – Nicholas Lester, Nico Darmanin, Heather Lowe & Andrew Hore; directed by Giles Harvergal; conducted by Tomáš Hanus

Rossini
Il barbiere di Siviglia– Opera buffa in two acts to a libretto by Cesare Sterbini after the play by Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais and the libretto by Giuseppe Petrosellini set by Giovanni Paisiello [sung in an English translation by Robert David MacDonald, with English surtitles]

★★★★☆

Count Almaviva – Nico Darmanin
Figaro – Nicholas Lester
Rosina – Heather Lowe
Dr. Bartolo – Andrew Shore
Berta – Isabelle Peters
Basilio – Sion Goronwy
Fiorello – Howard Kirk
Officer – Martin Lloyd
Ambrogio – Simon Crosby Buttle
Notary / Mayor – Alastair Moore
Bag Lady – Helen Greenway
Innkeeper’s Wife – Emma Mary Llewellyn
Innkeeper – Gareth Lloyd
Policemen – Michael Clifton-Thompson & Huw Llewelyn
Rosina Fans – Julian Boyce & Jasey Hall
Berta Fan – Laurence Cole
Priest – Stephen Wells

Welsh National Opera Chorus

Welsh National Opera Orchestra
Tomáš Hanus

Giles Harvergal – Director
Russell Craig – Designer
Davy Cunningham – Lighting Designer


Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 13 November, 2021
Venue: New Theatre, Oxford, U.K.

Whether or not the timing of Welsh National Opera’s programming of The Barber of Seville is intentional this season, the story of Rosina’s escape from enforced confinement in the home of her over-protective guardian, Doctor Bartolo, provides a humorous parallel with our own emerging out of the lockdowns during the course of the Covid pandemic.

Although the production by Giles Harvergal is thirty-five years old, it feels as appropriate now as at any time, in that the actual performance of the work – in a fairly traditional fashion – is framed, metatheatrically, as one by a travelling company, staging the opera in a small town residential square, in the middle of the nineteenth-century to judge from the costumes of the spectators. The latter double as the chorus when relevant, having first looked upon the orchestra whilst they play the Overture, mirroring the audience as it does so. The performance is played out dynamically on a make-shift wooden set in which Rosina, Bartolo, and Figaro’s different domains are clearly delineated within the structure with labelled curtains, further drawing attention to the innately theatrical phenomenon of the whole spectacle by their analogy with the actors’ green rooms. The witty English translation by Robert David MacDonald runs partly in line with the original libretto, but picks up on Cesare Sterbini’s own allusions in it to the work as a musical comedy by playing on those ideas further and drawing on other anachronistic references. It all points up the irresistible magic of live theatre and stagecraft, which audiences have so sorely missed since March 2020, and also remains faithful to the spirit of Rossini’s dramaturgy as he liked explicitly to explore, develop, or subvert the conventions of opera.

The cast enjoy the revelries as much as the director and translator must have done in creating the production in the first place. Nicholas Lester as Figaro acts with an improvisatory freedom in steering events as he aids Count Almaviva’s ruse to draw Rosina away from Bartolo’s grip. Musically he could bring a touch more bravado, not least in ‘Largo al factotum’, with perhaps more of a flourish at the concluding cadence, but otherwise he is an energetic presence on stage. Nico Darmanin is an easy-going Almaviva though there is something of a drawl in the singing of his vowels at times, and a nasal tone elsewhere.

Heather Lowe’s Rosina is stylish and dignified: her aria in Act One ‘Una voce poco fa’ is tantalising on account of its quiet, almost shy delivery, and later she becomes more outgoing and flirtatious, but not sassy or obvious, retaining the decorum one would expect of the Countess of The Marriage of Figaro. Andrew Shore makes for a likeably effete Bartolo, rather than a sinisterly sly or sleazy one, with self-effacing comedy running through both his acting and delivery of his music instead of crude caricature. Sion Goronwy (standing in for Keel Watson) provides a visually amusing contrast as Bartolo’s sidekick by physically towering over him, as well as his humorous sense of mischief, not least in the ‘Calumny’ aria which proceeds stealthily, like the rumours it describes.

Tomáš Hanus conducts quite earnestly, as though drawing out from the WNO Orchestra some symphonic detail, which provides unusual depth in this effervescent score. But it means that working up to its climaxes seems more like a labour (admittedly of love) than a natural outcome of this inherently sparkling music, and so the performance is somewhat contained, rather than bursting with Italianate verve and energy. But certainly his commitment to the score cannot be faulted, nor that of the orchestra and chorus. The stagecraft itself provides the veneer of irresistible fun in this production which makes it worth seeing, however familiar one may be with this work – one of the very greatest of opera buffe.

Further performance in Llandudno on 2 December 2021

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